Video of School Day from 1990, Fascinating for Teaching

What was it really like when I was in high school?

It's a question my own children sometimes ask me, as well as students in my classes.

It's a question that I have often asked myself in the years since I began teaching, not because I have forgotten the name of a teacher or tried to remember a major event--it's because I'm looking at school through a different lens now, that of a teacher.

That's why I was so excited when Mental Floss posted a link to the video below. Josh Burdick, a Houston-area videographer, had collected hours of tape in the late 80s and early 90s, which he has uploaded to his YouTube Channel.

His video of one day--April 6, 1990--in the life of a high school student is fascinating to me in many ways. First, April 6, 1990, was just over 10 months after I graduated from my high school, Highland Academy. Secondly, I finally had a chance to view first-hand as a teacher how schools and classrooms were managed.

In this blog, then, I want to go over the highlights of Josh's video. I'll let hair stylists and fashion critics describe what people look like--needless to say, the 1980s still had a strong hold on American culture four months into the 1990s. Plaid flannel shirts and unpermed heads were still a year or so away for most students.

Josh's Video

My Notes: Getting Up, Out of the House

0:08 (6:06 a.m.) 
Time to get up! Madonna's "Vogue" is playing on the clock radio. "You're a superstar,that's what you are." Talk about a great way to start the day.

3:35 (6:23 a.m.)
One of the things I like about this is some of the shots that 11th-grade Josh is trying out here. There is some skill involved here, and he's showing off his talents in point-of-view mode. Watch as he pours his morning coffee while filming.

What follows breakfast are some shots of the TV that set up the context of this particular April 6. The city is Houston where traffic was bad then and still is today. The weather forecast is for a cool, blustery April day.

9:39 (7:20 a.m.)
The door is open as Josh gets into the car. "Turn it up," he tells the driver. It isn't Madonna, nor is it Taylor Dayne, who had the #1 song in America that week. It isn't pop music at all but jazz. "Band kids?" I write in my notebook?

Band kidsDad is listening to jazz. Josh is cool with that. So am I.

Price check! Exxon motor oil on sale at Hi-Lo Auto Parts for 99 cents a quart. Current price $5.00 a quart. Wow.

Getting to School: My Notes

We are arriving at school: G.C. Scarborough Senior High School. According to Wikipedia, Scarborough was in its heyday in the late-80s, winning "Blue Ribbon" status. By 2007 it had been labeled "second-rate" by the Associated Press.  The school currently has 690 students, but this may have been 100 or so higher in 1990 when the school was closer to its salad days. In 1999 there were 958 students.

I can think of suburban Nashville high schools that have undergone similar transitions since the late-1980s, which were really the high times of suburbia. Middle class families lived comfortably outside the city limits. The inner cities have gentrified, and now "exurbia" is a thing--significant cities in their own right in counties ringing urban centers, which have the good schools, strong academic programs, sports, and arts.

15:47 (7:28 a.m.)

Here we have the first teachers of the day, waiting at the sidewalk to start the day off right (in high school this usually means 'give each kid a hard time with a smile on your face'). I can't fully catch what the one on the left says. Clearly he sees that Josh has brought a camera to school, and he's probably already doing a cost-benefit-analysis on allowing the camera onto school grounds as he says something like, "Don't beam in..."

The School Office. There are two secretaries. Things must have been so easy then. My school has one office secretary and over 1500 students. I don't know how she does it. Phones ringing, teachers calling in from rooms, kids asking for help. I would be insane after two hours, but Debbie has been there almost as long as I have.

Notice the computer on the desk, with a massive dot-matrix printer taking up half the desk. Look at it again. Why? It's the last time you'll see a computer in this school. This is probably the biggest difference between 1990 and 2016. I don't doubt that Scarborough High didn't have a computer lab at this point (my tiny church school had one), but teachers aren't using them in the classrooms at all.

Our videographer

This is our only view of Josh--this is the closest we get to a "selfie" in 1990. Check him out. Panama hat, glasses, tie, trench coat. I wasn't a kid like this in high school, but I knew plenty of them. I teach them every year. A cut above, they are. Great kids, even if they are prone to bring crazy contraptions to class and ask if they can use them!

The camera is perched on his shoulder here. I assume this is how he got the "coffee shot" and the "microwave shot" earlier that morning. This what kids will see who look at Josh the rest of this day.

Faculty siting. A trusty teacher is at the hall crossing. He doesn't say anything, but he's present, the most important quality of managing a classroom or a school culture. It's what my administrators emphasize to teachers like me each year. If I were to get "caught" on a student's video this coming school year, this would be a good place to be.

18:50 (8:55 a.m.)
First classroom. Technically, this is probably 2nd period. I would assume that Josh wasn't allowed to film once he got to first period. 

This is our first look at a 1990 classroom, and boy does it bring back memories. 

As I recall, these desks were old-style by the late-80s, slowly becoming replaced by the stainless-steel-framed desks still in use today. But there were still a few classrooms still using them. They were a tight fit for my skinny, 80s-era body, and the desk was made of real wood, which meant that initials or messages had been scratched into most of the desktops.

The other thing I notice is that they are all in rows. One advantage of these tiny desks would be organizing into groups or pods, but the desks are linear in every classroom.

Josh catches two teachers prepping or English class. I feel like I should recognize the film that they are prepping to show. (The closest I get is recognizing actor James Rebhorn on the screen). 

Classroom TVs hadn't reached the massive, child-crushing size that they would in the 1990s. This one isn't more than 32 inches. Next, the overhead projector, which I was using in my classroom right up until I got a ceiling-mounted projector in 2009 or so.

20:16-21;10 (9:56 a.m.)
This shot could have been taken right out of the movie, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, as the elder English teacher reads the announcements, the camera pans the students who are in various states of fixation on the class. You have kids who are simply talking, the mouthing-the-words-to-a-friend, girl, a huge yawn, one boy who is focused, and a girl who is snacking on a Butterfinger bar and doesn't mind letting everyone know about it. As with the "coffee shot," this is Josh showing off some clever camera work. Nice.

We have skipped to the end of the class period, costing me my chance to see an 80s-era English class, but what I see--a video clip, a reference to vocabulary word lists--reminds me of how I learned. Teachers taught and graded, students sat and wrote. Students who failed vocab tests were either too lazy to study or (more likely) too bored to write cheat notes.

Hall shot. I notice a lot of difference between this hallway and the hallways at my school. The biggest thing: no backpacks.

I think this may be a result of my school being on block schedule, because few students use lockers at my school. Instead they carry huge backpacks from class to class. I see purses in the hallway and the odd textbook or two, but I don't see backpacks.

Teacher siting. Josh goes into Ms. Dodd's room. 

She is there, but the room is empty. Planning period, perhaps. We see the TV/VCR cart here, too. That means she teachers English or history, right? To the left in this picture is a desk with handouts for students. Beyond is the podium and blackboard. And on Ms. Dodd's desk is a bookshelf and a plant. That's it.

24:14 (10:25)
History class. We have a couple of 80s kids welcoming Josh to history class. Hip-hop guy with the bandana and Indians hat gives us the "aww man!" welcome. (I swear I taught this same kid in 2014. His name was Curtis.) Next we get a peace sign from leather-jacket guy.

Another video is on. I recognize it as a clip from the film, Gung Ho, a 1986 comedy about an American factory foreman (Michael Keaton) who has to adjust to working under a Japanese boss after his company is taken over. 

This is the second reference to Japan in Josh's video. Paul Harvey had reported that the Nikkei Index had seemed to recover from a swoon on his ride into school (about 15:00). I remember how it seemed at the time that Japan would soon eclipse the United States at the rate it was growing. History would show that Japan's swoon hadn't ended on April 5, 1990. Its economy would stall for much of the 1990s.

Other interesting facts about this video in history. Four months later, Saddam Hussein would invade Kuwait, giving the United States its first chance to invade Iraq. Six weeks earlier, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison in South Africa.

There's a teacher at the crosswalk. I can't tell if it's the same guy from 17:15. I think it might be. The clipboard and the suit. He greets Josh. I think it's actually the administrator who greeted him at 15:42.

Chemistry lab. We get a good look at this teacher, but he's pretty no-nonsense, acknowledging the camera. It's safe to say that filming didn't continue once the bell rang. 

I know I promised not to make a big deal about hair styles, but I'll just leave this right here.

Lunchtime and the Afternoon

29:33 (12:27 p.m.)
Lunch time. Follow Josh as he wanders the halls and interacts with different social groups at Scarborough High. We have a wink from a cute girl (29:50), teenagers in an embrace that makes me wonder if they've been able to see each other since 1st period (30:01); mean girls sighting--it turns out that one is nice, which the others just give Josh exasperated glares (30:13); the "whole table full of beautiful girls" won't let him see their faces (30:45); and we have a dominoes table going in the cafeteria (31:17).

This would be a good place to comment on the racial make-up of 1990s-era Scarborough High. I would estimate that it's pretty diverse: 30-40% African-American, 20-30% Hispanic, and 40-50% White. It's interesting to compare that with the school today, which is 69% Hispanic, 24% African-American, and 5% White.

More than 90% of today's Scarborough students are on free & reduced lunch. I would say that is a big increase from the view that the video gives us. Based on the outfits I'm seeing in the halls, I'd say most students are middle or upper-middle class. The height of girls' hairstyles in the era signified families' ability to afford bottles of mousse and hair gel.

There seems to be a reason these kids are hanging out on the bleachers instead of close to the school. Josh seems quite oblivious. The middle fingers should be a warning. 

On the bleachers. Eighties kids, meet your 1990s grunge overlords!
The long-haired kid tries to make trouble and the cameraman away, but Josh won't turn off the camera. "I love zoom lenses!" he crows when safely out of range of anything but a middle finger. But he admits at 32:56, "I nearly got killed."

Band room. Class isn't in session. We have kids practicing for drum line and a really cool shot of a kid practicing guitar.

This is where the story of the real Scarborough High School deserves mention, since band and other student activities are the real fingerprint of any school. Checking Scarborough's web site, I see that they still offer band, but dance (a group named the "Show Stoppers") seems to be the only other activity. I don't see chorus or any mention of theater or visual arts.

At one point in the 2000s, Scarborough was established as a magnet school for Architecture and Landscape Design. This reflected the competition among schools that was encouraged in the era of No Child Left Behind. Challenged schools were given magnet programs to entice out-of-district and middle-class families to send their children there.

Scarborough lost the architecture magnet program in 2015, but its current slate of course offerings reflects the career & college focus of the Common Core Era. Now Scarborough students have a career path for network computer systems, HVAC and something called "etail/retail management."

Competition for motivated students is very real in public schools as well as private schools. That is probably one of the biggest changes in public education since I began teaching in 1994. There wasn't a sense of competition in public education--there was more of a "take it or leave it" attitude--and private schools used tools unknown to public schools like "advertising budgets" and "open houses" to run circles around places like Scarborough High and poach great students.

As public schools have raised their game since the 1990s, I have seen first-hand how middle class families can come back into the fold. My own children are enrolled in public schools, despite the fact that both my and my parents' generations were educated in private, religious schools. It isn't a money thing. It is a quality thing.

Spanish class. There's a sombrero on the bulletin board and a Julio Iglesias poster on the wall.There's a TV stand in here, too. Were we THAT crazy about videos in class at the dawn of the 90s?

Ms. Garcia's room is organized differently from the other rooms, though. She has it divided into two sides facing one another. As a foreign-language teacher myself, it looks like she's trying to encourage conversation and back-and-forth. Sadly, we don't get to see the class in action here, either.

38:36 (2:12 p.m.)
Last class of the day--geometry. I can tell the teacher is tired (I'm pretty tired, too, when I get to the final period). I can tell because he is sitting, and he isn't talking much, either. He simply points to the assignment on the blackboard as students enter.

We get one last look at the girl with the black scrunchie in her hair. She turned the other way when Josh tried to film her in the cafeteria. Her interest hasn't grown in the last two hours, only this time she doesn't even look at him. This reminds me a lot of my efforts at communicating with girls in high school.

Back in geometry class, the desks are organized haphazardly. There is so much walking around, is this class or study hall?

It's 2:56, almost time to go home. The teacher is at his desk, quiet. Kids are mulling around, speculating about sex.


This is a fascinating video, but I didn't get to see as much teaching as I would have liked. I will assume this was the teachers' fault, not the videographer's.

Still, this is a remarkably student-centered video, and teenage Josh deserves recognition for this (even as the adult Josh deserves thanks for posting this online). Many students go to school with the following questions on their mind: "who will I sit with at lunch?" or "what will the girl with the black scrunchie think of me today?"

The lifeblood of the school is the hallways, cafeteria and commons areas inside and outside school (for a select group of students it may also be a locker room, music room, or individual teacher's room--as it was with Ms. Dodd for Josh). That's where the "action" in this video took place.

Are these places safe? That's my #1 job as a teacher. Are they welcoming?  Is there room for dominoes, sombreros, guitar riffs? Only when these are in places will my lessons, my video clips, my big ideas reach each and every kid who enters my classroom.


  1. Honestly, this could have been a typical school day for me in Florida, I was a junior in HS then.
    One thing I will say is that yes, there was a big push to make television not just an entertainment device but an educational tool as well. A/V club was quite large and we got to classroom hop a LOT depending on who wanted what when. Most schools were cagey enough to use the kids' natural affinity for electronics to get these carts set up and running quickly.
    And dear Lord, the toxic fumes in the girls' restroom from AquaNet were a thing!


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